Monday, August 15, 2016

How About that Weather?

I was reading a piece of writing advice the other day about five clichés that ruin openings. I agreed with four of them, but either I don’t understand the fifth cliché the author was describing, or it’s simple wrong advice. The gist was, “don’t begin with the weather because no one gives a crap about the weather.”

First, I’m not sure that weather can actually be a cliché in the way “it was all a dream” is. I mean, weather is only a cliché in the sense that it’s always there. It’s reality rather than cliché. Second, maybe it’s because I grew up on a farm but I do indeed give a crap about the weather. In fact, almost everyone does and that would explain why it’s one of the major topics of conversation. Third, unless your story takes place fully inside a place with complete environmental controls and no windows, such as a spaceship, weather will be a part of a realistic story. Fifth, quite a few of my favorite opening sequences in literature incorporate weather. Give a listen:

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.” Hemingway—A Farewell to Arms.

“October Country . . . that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and mid-nights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain. . . .” Ray Bradbury—The October Country.

Or: “Heat beat down on my shoulders, my face cloth. My armor dragged at the riding sores underneath. Little sparkles danced behind my eyelids, and the strain in my joints were cramping to knots in my muscles. It had been a long ride. A grating call made my shoulders twitch. The carrion crows, who glided after us day after day, were waiting.” Heather Gladney—Teot’s War.

I stopped with these three in order to keep this post to a manageable length. There are many other examples I could give. Now, if the opening were ‘only’ a lengthy description of the weather, I would want the writer to move on. But, what I need from a story is to be immediately, or at least very quickly, “grounded.” I want to know “who” and “where.” If the story is taking place outside, a huge part of “where” is likely to involve weather.

As a reader, the surest way for a writer to lose me is to open with talking heads in a vacuum. Now there is truly something I don’t give a crap about. I’d rather it were all a dream.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Forgotten Books Friday: The Barbarian Swordsmen

The Barbarian Swordsmen, Edited by Sean Richards, 1981, Star Books, 172 pages.

This is another collection of sword and sorcery tales that I somehow missed over the years. It was a British only publication so that’s probably the reason. Not a lot of such books made it to Arkansas when I was living there. It’s a fine collection, though, and well worth picking up.

The editor of the work is Sean Richards, and there’s an introduction by him that talks about the stories. Some of this would have been new to me in 1981. Not anymore. I wasn’t able to find anything more about Mr. Richards.

The stories including are:
The War of Fire, by J. H. Rosny. This is an exciting excerpt from The Quest for Fire, which was also made into a fine movie. J. H. Rosny was actually a pseudonym, often used by two brothers, Joseph Henri Boex, and Justin Boex. However, from what I understand, Quest for Fire was written solely by the elder brother, Joseph. I’ve read the whole book and the movie does a good job of distilling it, but the book is enjoyable.  We have a primitive cave man named Naoh, probably what we’d call a Cro-magnon, whose tribe loses its fire. Since they can’t make fire, only maintain it, they have to seek out fire from some other tribe, and Naoh and his companions have many adventures in doing so, including a battle with Neanderthals. It is that piece which is featured in this book.

The Sword of Welleran, by Lord Dunsany.  Lord Dunsany, an Irishman, is well known to fans of sword and sorcery. His fantasy work certainly skated the edge of that genre and he helped develop some of the tropes that later became important. He is said to have influenced Tolkien. His work is rather slowly pace and turgid for modern readers but I find it enjoyable. “The Sword of Welleran” is one of his most approachable tales. 

The Tower of the Elephant, by Robert E. Howard.  I consider this the strangest of the Conan stories. It certainly breaks ranks with most of the other tales of the Cimmerian in that there is a strong SF element at its core. I was much taken with it when I first read it, years ago.

Brachan the Kelt, by Robert E. Howard. Howard wrote a number of stories involving reincarnation, and several of these featured the character James Allison, who is a modern man capable of remembering his past lives. He then relates these tales from his memories. This is a short piece and definitely not fully developed, but it shows the power of Howard’s prose. Allison remembers being a wandering warrior from a time before history was recorded, when the first white-skinned tribes were entering Europe. As Brachan, he must defeat a beast that makes one think of the yeti.

Jirel Meets Magic, by C. L. Moore. Catherine Moore was just a superb writer and her stories of Jirel of Joiry are outstanding tales of sword and sorcery. They are beautifully written and emotionally charged. Jirel is one of the very first fire-tressed female warriors of fantasy fiction. This is not my favorite of the Jirel stories but it’s close. Moore was influenced by Howard, although it seems to me that most of the influence was in subject matter rather than story effects.

Spawn of Dagon, by Henry Kuttner. Kuttner married C. L. Moore and after that they mostly wrote as a team. I think that Moore was the better writer but Kuttner was more prolific and very professional. Kuttner alone wrote a series of tales about Elak, a prince of Atlantis, and this is one of the best of those tales. Elak was certainly influenced by Howard’s Conan, but is his own character.

The Thief of Forthe, by Clifford Ball. Ball was another writer who was strongly influenced by Howard. That influence can be clearly seen in this story, but I thought it was well written and enjoyable. Apparently, Ball created an earlier character who was essentially a pastiche Conan, but “Rald,” the “Thief of Forthe” shows some originality. I haven't read much of Ball's work but am gong to seek out more.

The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar, by Fritz Leiber. Leiber is another writer who was influenced by Howard as to subject matter, but who in no way appears to be a clone of Howard. His characters and settings are unique and there is a lot more humor in Leiber’s tales than in the Conan stories of Howard. Leiber’s characters are Fafhrd, a giant of a man, a barbarian warrior, and the Gray Mouser, a dark and slender thief. They are unlikely friends but friends they are. All of these stories are enjoyable.

Appendix is: The Man Who Influenced Robert E. Howard. This is an excerpt from a letter written from Robert Howard to H. P. Lovecraft in which Howard indicates his admiration for the poetry of Alfred Noyes. 

Monday, August 08, 2016

How Social Media has Shrunk My Reading List

I’m hoping this post won’t lose me any readers but it’s about something that has been bothering me lately. It’s about how social media causes some writers to forfeit potential places on my reading list.  In the past two days, for example, I’ve discovered two writers, new to me, whose books and stories will almost certainly never have a chance to make it onto my TBR pile. These two are only the latest in what is becoming a fairly long “unlikely to read” list by now. I’m sorry to see it happen. One of my great joys has always been to find new writers whose work I can fall in love with.

The first of the two I’m talking about here posted the details of an interaction he had with a female literary agent at a conference. He didn’t get the contract he was clearly hoping for, and proceeded to trash the agent, by name, and insult her physical appearance in the process. This is in spite of the fact that his own description of the interaction indicated that the woman was just not interested in his project. It happens, you know. Not everyone will be wowed by an idea that you love. And there simply is no place in this kind of interaction for personal attacks, on physical appearance, no less. It makes me wonder, too, what kind of female characters this author creates. Will his women characters be people I can empathize with  or nothing but window dressing and plot contrivances?

The second of the two was a female author who described all “Bernie or Bust” people as folks who got awarded trophies for just participating when they were kids, meaning, I took it, that such folks don’t know what it’s like to have it tough. The author, of course, indicated how her life had been different. She went on to suggest that it was white males who were the main issue in the Bernie or Bust crowd. I’m not a Bernie or Buster and this individual’s opinion on the political process itself isn’t my issue. My question is whether or not a writer who throws out such sweeping generalizations understands enough of the nuances of human interaction to be able to create realistic characters in fiction. Without such characters, I’m not likely to find myself emotionally involved in a story.

Some of the previous folks who have made my “unlikely to read” list include a woman who stated publically that all men are supporters of rape culture, a man who offered an ad hominem attack on my political views and then proceeded to tell me what his IQ was and how many books he’d written as evidence of his correctness, and a fellow who made mean-spirited fun of gay people.

Don’t get me wrong, I read plenty of work by people who have said things I disagree with. My “do read” list is much, much longer than my “unlikely to read” one. What bothers me is the “one size fits all” approach to interacting with and categorizing people. All liberals are this way. All Republicans are another way. Gay people are this. White males are that. Women are….

If I’ve been reading a writer’s books for a long time and he or she says something that  crosses the line, I’ll generally give that author the benefit of the doubt. I know from their work that they are nuanced. But imagine that I’ve just recently friended a writer on facebook. I think that I might want to try something by them. And then I see a post like the ones I’ve described above. Will I pull the trigger on purchasing one of their books when it goes on sale? Or will I click past that sale to another new writer? For me, it’ll be the latter.

I know that writers are people too. I’m both myself, a writer and people. We have opinions. We get angry. But anyone who has made a study of how people act knows that no one can be absolutely categorized by a single characteristic such as gender, skin color, ethnicity, etc. Humans are walking, talking contradictions. Seems to me that an author, in particular, should be aware of this.  And those authors are the most likely to make my “definitely read” list. Since I love reading, that's where I hope every new writer I meet ends up. 

Saturday, July 30, 2016

From Yellow Flag Press.

Over the past few years, Yellow Flag Press has been quietly going about their business. That business is poetry. I recently picked up a packet of material from them and intend to do my reviews below. Suffice to say, there is excellent work afoot.

The first collection I read from Yellow Flag was: Katy E. Ellis’s Gravity, 2015. This is a very brief collection consisting of five poems, but it punches above its weight. Each poem deals with the topic of the title. Some lovely lines here: “between the beggar’s cool water and the rich man’s blistered tongue.” There’s a fine sense of heart in these poems. They make you feel.

The pieces arrived in a package with the thinnest work on top, thickest on bottom. For a lark, I read them that way. Next up came In Memoriam, 2015, by Kevin Dwyer. This is also a short work, actually a single long poem. It’s very powerful. Each page was a jewel, with the single exception of page 6, which seemed a bit repetitive. I’m sure there was a reason for the repetition but I didn’t quite understand it. The poem as a whole, though, is highly charged emotionally and left me with a deep sense of the many ways one person can be affected by loss.

Next up came Sleeping with Animals by Ashley Mace Havird, 2013. Particularly beautiful language here. For the emotions they portray, the first two poems, “Sleeping with Animals” and “Daughter 14, With Scissors,” were almost more than I could handle. After that the pieces seemed to take a step back from that level of soul baring and I really fell in love with many of these pieces. “Hurricane: The Brac,” “The Garden of the Fugitives.” These were my favorites. However, there’s not a single piece here without some memorable line: “cicadas sing themselves out of body, slit their own backs, escape with wings of glass.”

 The next collection is Elliptic, by Jack B. Bedell, 2016. This collection perfectly combines pieces that are full of humanity, and pieces full of nature. The very first poem, “First Kiss,” enchanted me. A young girl discovers frogs, becomes entranced. The human captivated by nature’s magic. Later we have the title piece, “Elliptic,” which is about erosion, and yet about more. Nature and humanity are in this thing together. “if we were to lay our dead / here to guard this shore / against new storms / we could not / pile bones quickly enough / to outpace this loss.”

Then I came to Learning to Love Louisiana by Elizabeth Burk, 2012. A very fine collection that resonated very strongly with me. The author is a “city girl,” I believe, who is now married to a Louisiana native and who spends a lot of time here. Here we have appreciations of the local environments but not a blind appreciation. As a whole, the work made me think of my own relationship. My wife is originally from New York City, but moved down here when we married. She too has learned to love the fecund nature of this place. My favorite was “Hush Over Atchafalaya.” “Silvery cypress stumps poke through stagnant waters / like fixed bayonets, ghosts of a forgotten war.” Many of the landscapes and people I know well are reflected beautifully here.

Finally we have Chorus Frog by William Kelley Woolfitt, 2014. My first read through of this collection identified it as nature poems. But it isn’t, strictly speaking—although there is much lovely imagery of nature within it. It was hard to establish a favorite here. Perhaps “Psalm with Sheet-web Spiders as Temple Singers,” or “Flat-Spired Three-Toothed Snail.” “I found more speech pouring from fragments / of sunlight on the ground, from the lichens, / rotting limbs in the leaf litter, and stones / shattered and upheaved…” I even had to learn a new word for this collection, “orogeny.” That’s always cool.

Overall, I thought this grouping was outstanding and it really put Yellow Flag Press on my radar. Of course, now, I think they should be on everyone’s radar.


Friday, July 22, 2016

Warlocks and Warriors, Two Different Ones

Warlocks and Warriors, Edited by Douglas Hill. Mayflower Books, 1971, 159 pages.

I own and have read just about every anthology of heroic fantasy published in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. But I didn’t have this one up until July of 2016, and I wouldn’t have gotten it then if not for a webpage list put out by the writer G. W. Thomas called “A Reader’s Guide to Sword & SorceryAnthologies.”  Thanks to him for the heads up. 

I guess I missed this book until now for two primary reasons. One, it was published only in England as near as I can tell. Second, there is another book entitled Warlocks and Warriors, which was published in 1970 by Berkley in the US. That probably helped me overlook this one. In addition, the cover is remarkably ugly compared to the cover of the other collection, which I've pasted below.

The 1970s Warlocks and Warriors was edited by L. Sprague De Camp, who did quite a few anthologies around this time while he was also busy editing and rewriting Robert E. Howard’s Conan tales. It’s certainly a good collection, and quite varied, with stories by Ray Capella, Lin Carter, Robert E. Howard, Henry Kuttner, Fritz Leiber, C. L. Moore, Lord Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith, H. G. Wells, and Roger Zelazny. I’ve already reviewed this book on Goodreads, however so I won’t say more about it here. 

The 1971 Warlocks and Warriors was edited by Douglas Hill, whose name I was not familiar with until after I posted this on Goodreads, whereupon a short biography of Hill appeared on my page. That was rather cool, and revealed to me that he also wrote stuff under the name Martin Hillman, who is included in this anthology. After a short and to the point introduction by Hill, the following stories appeared:
“The Sleeping Sorceress” by Michael Moorcock.
“The Curse of the Monolith” by Lin Carter and L. Sprague De Camp.
The Ogyr of the Snows” by Martin Hillman.
“The Wages Lost by Winning,” by John Brunner.
“The Wreck of the Kissing Bitch” by Keith Roberts.
“The Unholy Grail,” by Fritz Leiber.

I’d read “The Sleeping Sorceress” before. This is an early Elric story by Moorcock and is quite good. I’d also read “The Curse of the Monolith,” which is a Conan pastiche by Carter and De Camp. Not quite Howard’s Conan but it was an OK tale. I also had previously read “The Unholy Grail” by Leiber. This tale recounts the earliest adventure of the Gray Mouser, of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser fame. Not my favorite of the series, probably because I like the Fafhrd character better than the Mouser character.

What were new to me were the tales by Hillman, Brunner, and Roberts, and all three were quite good. Brunner, I know, of course. I’ve read a lot of his SF. This is a story of the “Traveller in Black,” definitely fantasy though not sword and sorcery. The “Traveller” is a kind of mixed angel/devil character, who has the power to grant people’s desires. I’d not previously read these tales. It was beautifully written but meandered a bit initially until it got to the main plot.

Martin Hillman’s “The Ogyr of the Snows” is definitely sword and sorcery, and a well written piece. The hero is Conanesque but it’s to be noted in this tale that he wins the day mostly by wit. According to the introduction, this tale was extracted from a “novel in progress” by Hillman, and I would certainly be interested in reading it. I've found since this post went up originally that Hillman was actually the editor, Douglas Hill, and he has written quite a few books. I'm trying to track down now which of these might feature the character of "Ogyr." 

The greatest treasure in this collection to my way of thinking, though, is “The Wreck of the Kissing Bitch” by Keith Roberts. This is a tale set in the world created by Michael Moorcock for his Ice Schooner book.  The world was already beautifully conceived and Roberts does a fine job of playing in the same universe. This was my favorite tale in the collection, concluding with a tense and exciting chase scene of sailed ships across the great ice seas. It sure made me want to go write some heroic fantasy.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Corona Obscura, By Michael R. Collings

Corona Obscura: SonnetsDark and Elemental: By Michael R. Collings, 2016, 78 pages.

I’ve been reading a lot of poetry lately. After reviewing the wonderful work Sacrificial Nights by Bruce Boston and Alessandro Manzetti, I received a kindle version of another ambitious poetry collection—Corona Obscura, by Michael R. Collings. This is a series of linked sonnets, all of which fall into the category of horror and dark fantasy.

Sonnets are among the most popular and most widely recognizable traditional forms in poetry. I guess the most traditional form is fourteen lines with each line having ten syllables. Collings, who knows far, far more about such things than I do, has an appendix (two actually) at the end of his work that explains a sonnet in much more detail, and also explains how, where, and why he varied from the standard. There is also “A Note on the Form” at the beginning that explains the linked sonnet concept and refers to them as “Crowns of sonnets.” This information was all well and good, and was interesting, but I was personally much more concerned with the poetry itself, with the language, the rhythm, the emotion. It’s fine to have ambitions for a piece of work, but does the work live up to those? Well, let’s see.

After an introduction by the poet Linda D. Addison, and the opening “note,” we come to the first piece, “Obsession.” This really starts the collection off strongly. A good ‘story’ gives the reader an immediate sense of place and sets a mood and character. “Obsession” does this for Corona Obscura.  Listen: “Each time I stalk the valley’s graveled road, / Pause near the creek that slits the browning yard / In twisted ribbons, only to explode / White rage beyond the bridge I feel a shard / Of potent loss, as if my life has flowed /

I’m there, walking that road, seeing the creek and the bridge. Poetry is often not so grounding and I was glad to see it, especially for such a complex endeavor as this collection. The last line of “Obsession” is: “Each time I leave, I know I will return.” This is a place we all know, and it reflects the nature of the pieces within the collection, where each ending line becomes the opening line of the next poem. That dovetailing is quite extraordinary. I’ve seen it done before but it doesn’t usually work as well as here.

In a linked collection such as Corona Obscura, story is important, and there is a strong one running throughout, although it is not a simple straightforward tale and there are plenty of places where we slip into what I’d categorize as alternate or dream realities. We always have concrete touchstones, however—houses, tombs, soil, rain, ash. For me, however, the primary reason I read poetry is to see the naked power of language unleashed. Collings does not fail to deliver.

“My flawed blood throbs…”

“In the fragile mind where vampires bloom.”

“Western radiance knits wan clouds to shroud”

“Sheer hunger sated by a crimson mead.”

“Fade with night as sunbright knives invade.”

“Bone-white wolf-moon waits, weary and wary.”

“sable swans glide on lakes as flat as lead.”

These are powerful phrases. They sing. They intrigue. There is one phrase in the collection that I think categorizes it all—“Transfixed by darkness…” This fascination, delight, and fear of darkness in all its forms is why this collection exists. Here we have the transmutation of darkness into art. I highly recommend it. Here's the link on Amazon if you care to take a look.